In the streets, mate. On the bus, mate. At your job, mate. In your house, mate. The only substance in Argentina that I daresay I have witnessed more frequently than mate is dulce de leche. Argentina has a very communal and loving culture when you look at it through my eyes and a lot of that culture is embodied in mate culture. It’s something that the average Porteño may not think about but it strikes a chord with me and I’d like to share it with you.
What is Mate?
Mate is a very strong tea leaf from the holly tree native to South America. Yerba Mate = “herb” + “gourd” which is quite fitting seeing as the tea is normally drunk from a gourd. Mate is said to have health qualities that outshine green teas and provide the energy boost of coffee. According to Guayaki (one of the big sellers of Yerba Mate) the drink contains vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, Niacin (B3), B5, B Complex as well as calcium, manganese, iron, potassium and other minerals. Yerba is low in tannin which allows it to be strong like coffee minus the bitter taste. Mate, like tea, lacks the oils and acids that gives people stomach aches and makes them jumpy when they drink coffee.
The Mate Gourd Ceremony
The pictures above are some of the gourds that I was talking about earlier. I bought one of the ones in the back right corner of the picture on the top left (I may show you mine later but it’s currently in a bag 3 feet away from me and I’m very lazy). These are some fancy “Buy me Ms. Tourist” mate gourds, the ones that most people drink out of are more like two on the bottom. The gourds tend to be made from “calabaza” or pumpkin as it compliments the flavor of the mate, so even when there is metal or something else outside, there tends to be a Gourd within it.
The straws that you see in the gourds are made of metal and are often works of art within themselves. Because the mate leaves float freely in the gourd, there are several different kinds of filtered endings for the “bombillas” to keep the mate leaves out while you’re drinking .
As my supervisor, Emi, informs me, there are two roles in the societal structure of mate culture: the one that brings the mate and hot water and the others that consume said mate before passing the gourd off to another person waiting to do the same. A constant cycle of pour, sip, pass spins on throughout the work day or any other activity for that matter.
The Legend of Yari
Mate is so deeply ingrained into South American culture that there are actually legends about it, so you know it’s real. One of my favorite legends is the legend of Yari. The indigenous people hailed Yari as the moon goddess in their religion. Yari would often look down on the forest created by Tupa, god of the Guaranis and wonder what it was like. Yari was so interested in the forest that, one day, she called Arai, the god of dusk, to come down and visit the forest with her. The two took on human form and walked through the forest, exploring as they went until a jaguar attacked them! Before the jaguar could reach them, an arrow flew by and pierced the animal in its chest, driven deeper as the cat fell on the wound. The archer then approached the two ladies and took them to the safety of his cottage. There, the two were tended to and cared for with great hospitality by the archer and his family.
When the morning came, the women got up and announced their departure, thanking the family for their hospitality and, after shedding their human form, returning to the heavens. Yari and Arai wanted to repay the archer for his kindness and hospitality as best they could. Yari planted small blue seeds in the forest near the archer and when she was done, Arai brought a rain cloud with sweet water to grow them. The seeds grew and the archer found them in the forest in a pattern that resembled Yari’s human form. Yari descended on a cloud and announced that she, the moon goddess, was the guest that he housed and had gifted this plant to him. As a gift in exchange for his hospitality, the archer was given yerba-mate which was from then on, to be a sign of friendship to the people of the land.
Mate for Me
The legend of Yari is the most accurate description or explanation that I could give you as a response to why I find the mate culture so special. If not the most accurate, it’s more concise so excuse me in advance as I ramble for a bit. Each person drinks from the same bombilla as the gourd gets passed from one hand to another. You don’t need to say “thank you” each time the gourd comes or leaves because it’s not a favor to be repaid, it’s a gift shared among friends on a daily basis.
I’ve been here for a little under a month, yet I’ve been cared for with the regard of a close friend by everyone I have encountered. Whether it’s Debora– my cohorts loving guide– or the lady in the market who helped me scour for Parmesan cheese I always get help when I need it. Or it might be Jose, who tells me where to buy good mate cups as he cleans the kitchen at CIPPEC. More often than not, it’s Juan who carts Andrea and I around Buenos Aires to every boliche in existence every weekend but always makes sure we get home safely. It’s my bosses, Agus and Emi, explaining everything from Argentine politics to the Boca-River futbol rivalry to me.
Mate culture is a very normal, very mundane aspect of Argentine culture; it’s also embodies the most beautiful aspect of the Argentine demeanor. Everyone is your friend in Argentina………as long as you have mate.
Thanks for listening!